Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tahitian Venuses by Lucien Gauthier: 1


As we are going through another minor heatwave here at present we thought it would be appropriate to return to the South Seas for one of our regular looks at Polynesian lovelies.

All of these ladies originate from Tahiti and their pictures were taken by a French photographer, Lucien Gauthier in the early years of the twentieth century.

Lucien Gauthier in his studio

Tahiti became a French protectorate in 1842 and the French government had a small garrison there. The first photographers in Tahiti were, therefore, French naval personnel.  A number of French officers took photographs which were sent to Paris for reproduction in magazines such as Tout du Monde and L'Illustration to pander to the thirst for views of these exotic islands.


By the 1860s there were regular visists by ships to Tahiti and it became possible for photographers to establish on the island.  These photographers would take pictures of views of the island and the exotic inhabitants to be sold in albums.


The voyage from the US to Tahiti had to be made by schooner and would take several months, limiting accessibility and the number of settleres that came to the island.

Schooner in Papeete Bay

In 1901, however, the Oceanic Steamship Company of San Francisco launched a regular (once every 36 days) service to Papeete.  Leaving San Francisco at 11.00 am  on the steamship Mariposa under the command of Captain Rennie, the voyage would now take only 12 or 13 days, remaining at Papeete for four days before returning to San Francisco.  Although the ship could accomodate 75 passengers it rarely took more than 25 making it a relaxing voyage, according to travellers at the time.

SS Mariposa docked at Papeete in 1907

It was on the Mariposa that French photographer Lucien Gauthier arrived in Tahiti in 1904.  Gauthier was born in 1875 but left France at the age of 27 to work in the French American Bank in San Francisco.  A friend told him that the only photographic studio had just closed on the island and he set off for Papeete forthwith.

Gauthier's studio at rue des Ramparts, Papeete

He rented a house in the rue des Ramparts and set up his studio there.  He had bought a simple camera in San Francisco but had to learn his trade as photographer as he went. He put up a simple case outside his house and put examples of his photographs inside it (see above) which acted as his only advertisement.


At this time there were about 700 Europeans living in Papeete and people started to come to his makeshift studio and have their portraits taken.   His sitters weren't just local government officials but also some distuinguished locals as well.


Gauthier, like many others before him, became particularly enamoured of the beauty of the local girls and started to photograph them as well.


In this post we have put together a selection of his studio shots, many taken against a painted backdrop of a Tahitian landscape.  Later he would shoot his ladies on location and we will look at them another time.


Gauthier only spent two years in Tahiti as he was required to return home to France to complete his military service.   He returned to San Franciso on the Mariposa arriving shortly after the 1906 earthquake which meant that he had to sleep outside on the ground on his arrival.


Gauthier had little difficulty encouraging the local girls to pose for him for his tasteful art nudes for, despite the activities of Catholic missionaries who had made the girls cover up, memories of a culture that did not see nudity as shameful remained strong enough.  Gauthier himself recording that, on one of his expeditions to some of the wilder and more distant country, he ran into a completely naked vahine, much to his delight.

Terai demonstrating an aparima dance step

Gauthier's girls show less of the impact of Chinese and Indian blood coming to the island and so their apperance more closely mirrors the look of the girls who enticed the crews of Bougainville and Bligh over a hundered years earlier.


More of these langorous lovelies another day.

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